Last Voyage of the Thomas Cornell
Editor’s Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article featuring stories by Captain William O. Benson (1911-1986). Beginning in 1971, Benson, a retired tugboat captain, reminisced about his 40 years on the Hudson River in a regular column for the Kingston (NY) Freeman’s Sunday Tempo magazine. Captain Benson's articles were compiled and transcribed by HRMM volunteer Carl Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published April 2, 1972.
For nineteen years prior to 1882, there were two very elegant, fast sidewheel steamboats operating between Rondout and New York City. Both steamers were owned by different companies, but operated on the same route on the same schedule on alternate nights, giving a daily service for passengers and freight to New York. One steamboat named “Thomas Cornell” was owned by the Cornell Steamboat Company. The other, slightly smaller, was named “James W. Baldwin” and owned by the Romer and Tremper Steamboat Company.
On March 27, 1882 — 90 years ago tomorrow — the "Thomas Cornell” was to leave Rondout on the final, fateful trip of her career. On her last voyage she had a fairly large load of freight on her main deck forward, the principal item of which was Delaware and Ulster County butter for the New York market, and for that time of year quite a few passengers, approximately 90.
One of the passengers was the late Mrs. Edith Schryver of Port Ewen. She was a young girl on that March night and lived beyond the age of 90. I talked to her several times about the “Thomas Cornell’s” last sailing.
A Rainy Day
The afternoon of March 27, 1882 was hazy with intermittent rain. Promptly at 6 p.m., her regular departure time, the “Thomas Cornell" cast off her mooring lines, backed down on her stern line to swing her bow out into the creek, and blew one long whistle to let go. Small patches of snow could still be seen in the hills of Sleightsburgh.
As the “Cornell” slowly paddled down Rondout Creek, she passed several Cornell sidewheel towboats tied up at the lower Cornell repair shops and a number of ice barges and D. and H. canal boats waiting for repairs at the Morgan Everson shipyard at Sleightsburgh.
As the steamer passed out of the mouth of the creek and past the Rondout Lighthouse, which then stood on the south bank of the creek, Mrs. Murdock (the keeper) came out to wave to Mrs. Schryver. Mrs. Murdock was a relative of Mrs. Schryver and knew she would be a passenger on the “Thomas Cornell” that evening.
As the "Cornell" headed down on the lower ice house at Port Ewen, they could dimly see through the rain and fog banks several schooners and Hudson River sloops anchored in the bad weather and waiting for the tide.
A Thick Fog
Down off Esopus Island, the fog set in very thick. At that point occurs what rivermen call a fog hole, because it comes from both sides of the river. Beaver Creek on the east shore and Black Creek on the west shore. Off Hyde Park, they overtook the towboat "Silas O. Pierce" with a schooner alongside and passed at a nice distance.
The regular landings were made at Poughkeepsie, Milton and Marlborough. As the “Thomas Cornell” left the dock at Marlborough at 8:10 p.m., she grazed the bowsprit of a schooner and broke some slats in her gangway railing.
A few minutes earlier, while still at the Marlborough landing, the "Cornell’s" captain, William H. Cornell, had expressed the opinion it might be wise to lie there until the weather improved. First Pilot Henry W. Briggs, however, assured the captain there was no danger and the steamer got underway.
From Poughkeepsie to Danskammer Point, about 2 ½ miles below Marlborough, the river is relatively straight. On around Danskammer Point, a pilot would alter course and head straight for Smith’s Bluff above Newburgh. Danskammer Point itself is a headland that projects out from the west bank and on its northern side sweeps around in a curve which ends in a narrow formation of rocks bearing north and rises about twelve feet above the water.
After the "Thomas Cornell" left Marlborough the fog seemed to lay on the water, like the rain was trying to push it back in the river. Both First Pilot Briggs and Second Pilot Louis Shultis were in the pilot house. They could just see the top of Hampton Bluff, a large hill about half way between Marlborough and Roseton. The visibility got worse, but pilot Briggs, known as an ace pilot, was confident that his course would take him past Danskammer and into upper Newburgh Bay.
Something, however, went wrong. Perhaps the pilots misjudged the strength of the tide. Perhaps some metal object had drawn the compass off a couple of points. In any event, Captain Cornell entered the pilot house and shortly afterward Second Pilot Shultis shouted, “Heave! Heave!” and rang to stop. At that instant, the “Thomas Cornell” ran right up on Danskammer Point.
If she had been but 25 or 30 feet to the east, she would have just missed, but this was not the case.
Since the “Cornell” was just in too close, her bow plowed up on the rocks and knocked down scrub pines and alders. Her deck beams and planking must have made a terrific cracking and splintering sound on that quiet rainy night as she climbed up that rocky arm protruding out in the Hudson.
Life Boats Over
Her stern began to settle in the water and in a few moments life boats were put over and ladders placed from the bow to the ground. Some passengers and crew went down the ladders directly to terra firma. In 20 minutes all of the passengers and their baggage were ashore.
Over 50 years later, I was told by a man who worked at the brickyard below Danskammer Point that he had lived in the area and was about 14 years old the night of the accident. He told me how he had heard a loud crash like trees crashing in a high wind. When he started up to where the noise came from, he could hear loud talking and a bell ringing, like the sound of a distant church bell. The bell had actually been the bell of the “Thomas Cornell” being tolled by her officers to attract attention.
The man told me that when he got to the scene through the fog and rain over the rocks, there were all these people and that great white steamer with her bow standing high out of the water among the rocks and trees. He said he was so frightened he couldn’t say a word. Everybody else seemed to be talking at once.
The tolling of the "Cornell’s” bell attracted the attention of the passing steamer “John L. Hasbrouck," the Poughkeepsie to New York night boat. The “Hasbrouck”’ took aboard most of the passengers and part of the crew. At Newburgh, the crew members and 30 passengers, who had had enough steamboating for one night, went ashore and spent the night. The remaining passengers continued on to New York.
The Salvage Job
Preparations were immediately undertaken to salvage the wrecked steamboat and the Coast Wrecking Company with a bid of $17,500 was given the job. Under the direction of Wrecking Master Merritt, the "Thomas Cornell” was pulled off Danskammer Point on May 5, floated and towed to Port Ewen. She had suffered so severely in the accident, however, a decision was made to abandon her and build a new boat to replace her. The hull was later made into two barges.
Pilot Briggs was deeply affected by the accident. Some second guessers blamed him for running in the fog. Others approved his action, pointing out that the steamboat owners took a dim view of employees who lost valuable freight and passengers by tying their boats up at docks along the river. It would appear the second group were sounder in their thinking, at least at that time, as all other boats the night of the accident were reported by Poughkeepsie on time.
The accident led indirectly to several other later incidents. For the balance of the season of 1882, the steamboat “City of Catskill” was chartered from the Catskill Line to run in the place of the lost “Thomas Cornell.”
Next winter, the Cornell office on Ferry Street in Rondout caught fire and was destroyed. The fire spread to the steamer “City of Catskill” which was layed up in the ice behind the Cornell office and totally destroyed the steamboat.
The next year, the new steamboat the “City of Kingston,” which was built to replace the “Thomas Cornell,” appeared on the river. In 1889, she was sold and went all the way from Rondout around Cape Horn to Puget Sound, where she was later sunk in a collision. This, however, will be the subject of a later article.
Captain William Odell Benson was a life-long resident of Sleightsburgh, N.Y., where he was born on March 17, 1911, the son of the late Albert and Ida Olson Benson. He served as captain of Callanan Company tugs including Peter Callanan, and Callanan No. 1 and was an early member of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. He retained, and shared, lifelong memories of incidents and anecdotes along the Hudson River.
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Editor’s note: This article contains racial slurs quoted as part of period newspaper articles and advertisements.
In the summer of 1881, the Kingston Daily Freeman ran a series of articles about what became known as “glee clubs,” made up of Black or “colored” crewmembers of the steamboats Mary Powell and Thomas Cornell.
The prevalence of singing aboard steamboats on the Mississippi is well-documented. Sea musician Dr. Charles Ipcar documented some of this history in “Steamboat and Roustabout Songs.” Roustabouts, also known as stevedores, were regular or short-term dock workers who primarily moved cargoes and fuel on and off steamboats. In the American South, these laborers were primarily Black, and coordinated loading by singing, keeping the freight moving to a rhythm – much like sailboat crews would coordinate hauling lines by singing sea shanties. When these songs were doubly coordinated with specific dance moves, they were known as “coonjine.”
It is unclear whether or not Hudson River steamboats also had crews of roustabouts or stevedores who sang at their work. Most of the bigger steamboats were designed for passenger use, so the only cargoes were fuel and food for the trip, and passenger’s luggage. One newspaper article from 1890 indicates that Southern Black longshoremen did come north for work in New York Harbor, particularly after white longshoremen were organizing unions and strikes. That same article also indicated that at least one “Mississippi roustabout” was leading a group in singing roustabout songs. But while it’s not clear that steamboat crew on the Hudson River sang regularly, references to Southern roustabouts and their songs did occur frequently in New York.
Roustabout songs were often among those included in minstrel shows - often performed by white musicians in blackface enacting racist caricatures of the Black Americans they purported to emulate. The popularity of minstrel shows and music date back to the 1830s, but during Reconstruction (1865-1877), many Black Americans saw career opportunities in taking control of the narrative and performing their own minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were among the most popular form of entertainment in 19th Century America. Many romanticized plantation life and depicted enslaved people as simple and happy with their enslavement. These depictions just as popular, if not more so, in the North than the South. Below are two examples from New York newspapers.
The headline “Mississippi Roustabouts” is a racist account of visiting the Mississippi, published in the Buffalo Evening News, September 15, 1904. The second is an advertisement for the Glens Falls Opera House advertising the show “The Romance of Coon Hollow,” a popular show that opened on Broadway in 1894. Songs or scenes listed in the advertisement include "The Great Steamboat Race" and "The Jolly Singing and Dancing Darkeys." These are just two examples of how racial caricatures of Southern and Black life had entered the mainstream popular culture in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It is against this complicated backdrop that we encounter the “glee clubs” of the steamboats Mary Powell and Thomas Cornell.
Initially referred to as “colored singers” (the “glee club” title came later), our story begins on July 29, 1881, with a short article in the Kingston Daily Freeman called “Musical Talent on the Cornell” :
“The steamer Cornell’s colored boys are fast coming into prominence as good singers, and it is believed that in a short time they will organize themselves into a vocal club. Wednesday night when the famous vocalist Mrs. Osborn favored the Cornell people with some selections from her repertoire, the boys started plantation songs and Mrs. Osborn, as well as several gentlemen on the steamer who are good judges of music, stated that the singing was excellent. If they organize they will give the Mary Powell singers a challenge to prove which of the two clubs is better.”
Four days later, the Freeman followed up with “A Challenge” :
“The Mary Powell Colored Singers Challenge the Singers on the Cornell.
“Last Friday evening the Freeman published an item commending the singing of the colored deckhands [dockhands?], cooks, etc. on the Thomas Cornell, and also said there was a prospect that they would organize themselves into a vocal club and then compete with the famous Mary Powell singers as to which is the better club. The Powell boys saw the article in the Freeman and are ready for the fray. They desire us to challenge the Cornell’s singers for a prize of $50, the contest to come off at any time the Cornell vocalists may select within the next two weeks; the place, judges and other arrangements to be mutually agreed upon. Several of the Powell crew have belonged to professional troupes, and they feel confident of outsinging their formidable rivals. One or two of them will stake $5 apiece on the contest. It is thought a good idea in the event of a match ensuing that some large hall be hired and that a small admission fee be charged, which will somewhat defray expenses. No doubt a large audience would witness the match. Come, Cornell boys, accept this challenge and show your prowess. You will have to work hard, though, for the Powell singers are very good.”
It is unclear whether or not these groups were simply recreational clubs for employees of their respective steamboats, or if the groups performed while on the job. The Mary Powell did have a reputation for musical entertainments, but according to surviving concert handbills, these were usually orchestral performances of classical music. In addition, one photo of the Mary Powell orchestra survives, and this incarnation at least, from 1901, is all white.
Eight days after the Freeman suggested a formal singing contest, the Kingston reading public got just that. “Cornell-Powell Singers,” published on August 10, 1881, reads:
“A Prize Singing Match for $50 a Side to Come Off Within a Short Time.
“About three weeks ago the colored singers on the Thomas Cornell were lauded by the Freeman for their excellent vocal accomplishments and at the same time we proposed the starting of a singing match between them and the famous Mary Powell singers. The Powell boys saw our article and authorized us to challenge the Cornell singers for a prize singing match, which we did and as a culmination of arrangements toward such an end a committee from the Cornell waited upon the Powell men yesterday morning to accept the challenge. Accordingly some time within the next three weeks Kingston will witness a first-class prize singing match in either Sampson Opera House or Music Hall for a prize of $50. Each club is to select and sing its own songs. Both clubs are now organized for business under the title of the “Cornell Glee Club” and the “Mary Powell Glee Club.” Constant practicing from now until the match comes off will be in order on these two steamers and passengers will have a rare treat.”
By renaming themselves as “Glee Clubs,” the steamboat employees were staking territory as professional singing groups. Originally created in 18th century England, glee clubs were small groups of men singing popular songs acapella, often with close harmony. Started on college campuses in the Northeast, glee clubs soon spread across the country, but remained primarily the domain of white men. By the end of the 19th century, many of these groups were regularly singing minstrel music and “Negro spirituals,” often in blackface.
The two groups of steamboat employees may have simply decided that being a “glee club” was more descriptive than “colored singers,” or more respectable, or might raise more interest among the general public.
The last sentence of the above article is also an interesting one, implying that the groups planned to practice, if not perform, while at their work aboard their respective steamboats. The reference of the songs being “a rare treat” indicates that singing while working aboard was not a common occurrence.
By August 12, the date was set. The Daily Freeman reported that the match would take place on August 20, 1881. Tickets were “thirty-five cents for general admission, and reserved seat tickets will be sold at fifty cents.” The Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle advertised the same.
Two days after the concert took place, the Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle published a full account of the event, “Singing for a Prize: Mary Powell vs. Thomas Cornell” :
“We extract from the Rondout Courier’s account of the singing match at Music Hall, Kingston, Saturday evening, so interesting report of the contest between the colored employees of the Thomas Cornell and Mary Powell.
“Music Hall was a scene of most intense interest on the occasion. Our colored friends seemed to [own?] the whole town, and the great hall, although too large for the audience, as too small for them – Prof. [Jack?] Miner was Judge.
“As the Powell was late and the Cornell early, the Cornell Club was first on the stage. The stateroom [eight?] of the Cornell came upon the stage with determination written upon every brow. They are darker and sturdier than their competitors, looking more like plantation hands, as befits a freight boat [editor's note - the Thomas Cornell was a passenger boat, not a freight boat]. They had more depth of hold and breadth of beam, and there was more solidity about them. Their bass was very bass indeed, Mr. Lew Vandermark scraping the very [lowest?] of his lower notes, and the leader, Aug. Fitzgerald, kept steadily the main channel of his tubes. The marked [characteristics?] of the two clubs were brought out very distinctly when the Cornell Club, at the hint of George F. [?] sang, “Mary had a little lamb,” which had been previously rendered by the Powell boys. In this the “baaing” of the lamb is given, with variations.
“The Powell boys are of lighter build and complexion than their competitors. They sing out their notes with a sort of twirl, as if one had ordered 'broiled blue fish' or 'Spanish mackerel,' with Saratoga potatoes, while the Cornell boys came up with the mere solid beefsteak and boiled murphies of a 'stateroomer supper.'
“The members of the clubs were as follows:
"Cornell Glee Club – Aug. Fitzgerald, leader; L. Schemerhorn, Eugene Harris, [Dav.?] Johnston, George Dewitt, Lew Vandemark, Chas. Van [Gaasbeck?], Dennis Johnston, Miss [Lizzie?] Hartly, pianist.
"Powell Glee Club – I. P. Washington, leader; J. C. Washington, James Poindexter, Wm. McPherson, B. G. Smith, Robert Martin, Harry Coulter, Prof. John [Mougan?]. The latter also acted as pianist.
“The audience was a fair one. It thoroughly enjoyed itself, an after the crews got fairly warmed up it got considerably excited, and stamped and shouted and clapped in the wildest manner, winding up in a round of cheers.
“The Cornell Club mainly confined itself to pious tunes; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Prepare Me Lord,” and the like, filling the programme, while the Powell boys had lighter pieces and evinced a strong preference for [fancy?] [selections?]. The Cornell crew sang “Sweet Ailleen” very prettily, and did better with the songs than the hymns.
“The audience was well pleased with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Oh Them Union Brothers,” in which the Cornell crew caught the wild melody nicely. The Powell followed with “Hark, Baby, Hark,” sang very prettily indeed, and “Row the Boats,” in which the sweep of the melody is very sweet. The Cornellites came up smiling with their religious tunes, of which “Pray all along the Road” was the most noticeable. Then came one of the gems of the evening, “Night Shades,” by the Powell boys, which the audience was highly pleased with and “Old Oaken Bucket,” which they sang nicely. For an encore they dipped into the religious vein, which seemed to stir up the Cornellites, who retorted with “Mary had a Little Lamb,” with which the Powellites had previously brought down the house. The version was a little different, but both took with the house. The audience at this point applauded the Cornellites very heavily, which caused the Powellites to bring out their best and “Mary Gone with a Coon” was given.
“The programme was finally closed with the Powell boys singing “Good Night” when Geo. F. [Kjerstad? Kjersted?] brought forward Prof. Miner. He made a few remarks in which he said he had tried to perform his duty as Judge honestly, and then disclosed that the victory rested with the Mary Powell club, when there was great applause, and the audience died slowly out.”
Here we finally get some details! We have names of the participants, for one, and details of the concert itself, including the songs.
Sadly, we also have a complicated blend of admiration and racism. Of the Cornell singers, the author writes, “They are darker and sturdier than their competitors, looking more like plantation hands, as befits a freight boat.” (Note that the Thomas Cornell was a passenger vessel build specifically to rival the Mary Powell, not a freight boat.) Whereas, “The Powell boys are of lighter build and complexion than their competitors. They sing out their notes with a sort of twirl, as if one had ordered ‘broiled blue fish’ or ‘Spanish mackerel,’ with Saratoga potatoes [potato chips], while the Cornell boys came up with the mere solid beefsteak and boiled murphies [potatoes] of a ‘stateroomer supper.’”
Here, the author conflates appearance with singing talent, implying that the more slender and lighter complexioned “Powell boys” sang with more delicacy and finesse than the darker complexioned “Cornell boys.” One wonders if the Mary Powell crew were specifically selected for employment due to their lighter skin tone, or if it was simply coincidental. Shades of blackness and whiteness were very important in the racial hierarchy of the United States, with lighter skinned people often receiving better or preferential treatment when compared with darker skinned people. The persistent use of the term “boy” to refer to Black adult men is also a racist microaggression, designed to imply inferiority when compared to white men.
Ultimately, the Mary Powell crew were declared winners, a result backed up by a single line in the New Paltz Times on August 24, 1881. Although many of the songs listed are unfamiliar to modern audiences, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has persisted, as has “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was interestingly performed by both groups.
Preliminary search results for the members of the two glee clubs both before and after the concert resulted in few hits, although by 1903, a Lew Vandemark was part of a group called “Smith’s Colored Troubedours,” which gave a performance before the cakewalk at “Charley Conkling’s Masquerade” in Middletown, NY.
If you would like to assist us by researching these men (and one woman!), their names are as follows.
Thomas Cornell Glee Club members:
Mary Powell Glee Club members:
I have found no further reference to either glee club, nor similar groups connected to Hudson River steamboats, but I hope that by sharing these stories we can discover more information about the club members and their work.
If anyone would like to see original images of the newspapers, or has leads on any of the people listed above, other references to the glee clubs, or to other singing clubs associated with steamboats, please contact us at email@example.com.
 Charles M. Ipcar, “Steamboat & Roustabout Songs,” paper presented at the 2019 Mystic Seaport Sea Music Festival.
 “Colored ‘Longshoremen,” The Sun [New York], March 23, 1890.
 “Musical Talent on the Cornell,” Kingston Daily Freeman, July 29, 1881.
 “A Challenge,” Kingston Daily Freeman, August 4, 1881.
 “Cornell-Powell Singers,” Kingston Daily Freeman, August 10, 1881.
 “Glee Clubs – Minstrelsy & Negro Spirituals,” University of Richmond Race and Racism Project, https://memory.richmond.edu/exhibits/show/performancepolicy/glee-clubs---minstrelsy---negr
 “The Cornell-Powell Prize Singing,” Kingston Daily Freeman, August 12, 1881.
 Untitled, Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle, August 17, 1881.
 “Singing for a Prize: Mary Powell vs. Thomas Cornell,” Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle, August 22, 1881.
 “Charley Conkling’s Masquerade,” Middletown Daily Press, November 23, 1903.
Sarah Wassberg Johnson is the Director of Exhibits & Outreach at the Hudson River Maritime Museum and is the co-author and editor of Hudson River Lighthouses, as well as the editor of the Pilot Log. She has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and has been with the museum since 2012.
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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